The actor Jan-Michael Vincent, who has died aged 73 of cardiac arrest, had the formidable, sun-bleached good looks and strapping physique to be a successful leading man, but only some of the talent required and precious little of the wisdom or luck.
His most notable work was as one of a trio of blond Malibu surfer buddies in John Milius’s mythic and highly regarded coming-of-age drama Big Wednesday (1978). The film follows its characters from the start of the 1960s to the mid-70s as they variously confront maturity, fatherhood, Vietnam and the eternal allure of the Pacific ocean. Vincent, a passionate surfer himself, came to Milius’s attention after the film’s co-writer Dennis Aaberg saw him catching waves at Topanga. Though stunt doubles were involved in the filming, he and his co-stars, Gary Busey and William Katt, did some of their own surfing on screen.
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In the same year, Vincent was charismatic as a hotshot young stuntman snapping at the heels of a veteran, played by Burt Reynolds, in the action comedy Hooper. He was one of Robert Mitchum’s sons in the TV mini-series The Winds of War (1984), for which he earned his second Golden Globe nomination; coincidentally, his first had also been for playing Mitchum’s son in the drama Going Home (1971).
At the height of his success, Vincent reportedly commanded $200,000 per episode for the TV series Airwolf (1984-86), in which he played the brooding, daredevil helicopter pilot Stringfellow Hawke. Hawke’s adventures in combat and espionage typically touched on routine preoccupations of the era (Libya, the cold war, the lingering irresolvable spectre of Vietnam) but this was not your ordinary action hero. He played the cello and he avoided red meat, as well as the wearing of underwear.
When that series came to an end, due in part to the actor’s cocaine habit and his increasingly unreliable behaviour, so, really, did Vincent’s career, which plummeted faster than a falling chopper. There were many film and TV roles before his last recorded credit in 2002, but with the exception of a cameo in Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 (1998), they were confined largely to tacky straight-to-video thrillers with interchangeable titles: Deadly Embrace (1989), Sins of Desire, Hidden Obsession, Indecent Behavior (all 1993). Not one gave the slightest indication that his career had begun so promisingly.
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Born in Denver, Colorado, Jan-Michael was the son of Doris Jane (nee Pace) and her husband, Lloyd Whiteley Vincent, who was a bomber pilot during the second world war before becoming a sign-painter. He was raised in Hanford, California, where his parents ran a successful billboard company. Jan-Michael’s grandfather Herbert had been a bank-robber who served time in the 30s for his part in holding up the First National Bank in Caruthers, California; he was also an alcoholic, an addiction passed on to his son and grandson in turn.
Jan-Michael went to Woodrow Wilson junior high and Hanford high school before fleeing to Ventura College when his father tried to pressure him into working for the family business: “I put my surfboard in the car and left,” he said. He stayed there for three years, then went to Mexico before serving with the California National Guard.
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Struck by Vincent’s good looks, a talent scout secured him a contract with Universal Studios. “Jan was a ‘stand and deliver’ type of actor,” said the actor Robert Englund, who starred with him in the torrid drama Buster and Billie (1974), about troubled high-schoolers in 40s Georgia. “He could, in those short bursts, dominate the scene he was in, and he was very effective.”
His acting career began in TV series including Lassie and Bonanza. From his film debut in the western The Bandits (1967), he was in work almost constantly for the next 20 years. He starred with John Wayne and Rock Hudson in the civil war drama The Undefeated (1969) and opposite Charles Bronson in the thriller The Mechanic (1972).
He was in the live-action Disney comedy The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973), Richard Brooks’s accomplished and sensitive western Bite the Bullet (1975), starring Gene Hackman and Candice Bergen, and the post-apocalyptic adventure Damnation Alley (1977).
But his post-Airwolf years amounted to a litany of misfortune, criminal behaviour and bad films – the only sort that would employ him once his addictions compromised even his ability to remember his lines. In the 90s, he was involved in three car accidents and was left with damaged vocal cords and broken vertebrae in his neck.
In 2000, he assaulted a former girlfriend and was ordered to pay $350,000. He went to jail for violating his probation for arrests relating to alcohol offences. Yet another car accident in 2008 led to an infection resulting in the amputation of the lower half of his right leg during an operation in which he nearly died.
He was married three times. The first two marriages, to Bonnie Poorman, then Joanne Robinson, ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Patricia Ann (nee Christ), and by Amber, his daughter by Bonnie.
• Jan-Michael Vincent, actor, born 15 July 1945; died 10 February 2019